Western Values Project (WVP) filed suit in Superior Court of the State of California for the County of Fresno against Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s former client, Westlands Water District, for three unfulfilled public records requests under the California Public Records Act (CPRA) (see exhibits and correspondence here).
WVP submitted the public records requests on May 4, 2017, to Westlands regarding communications with their former lobbyist-turned Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. After nearly two years, not one of the requests has been fulfilled, a violation of California law.
Westlands Water District has materially benefited from Bernhardt’s work as a lobbyist and later as a public official. Secretary Bernhardt and Westlands have also been at the center of numerous investigation requests for potential civil and criminal violations of the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 (LDA). Yesterday, Interior’s Office of the Inspector General confirmed that it has opened an investigation to address “a wide assortment of complainants alleging various conflicts of interest and other violations.”
Bernhardt didn’t just make millions in the private sector cashing in on his previous government experience, there are also examples of where he may have violated lobbying laws and Trump’s ethics pledge when he returned to the department,” said Chris Saeger, Executive Director of Western Values Project. “The fact that Bernhardt’s former client has been withholding public information raises suspicion, to say the least, and could provide valuable information for Bernhardt’s newly opened investigation. Westlands should comply with the law and immediately release public documents related to Bernhardt and his former lobby firm.”
Westlands is the largest agricultural water district in the country according to their website and delivers water to landowners and producers through the Central Valley Project (CVP), a federal water project. The District is a local-government entity formed in 1952 which makes it subject to California’s Public Records Act.
Records obtained by the New York Times indicate that Bernhardt may have lobbied on behalf of Westlands until at least some time in 2017 – after Bernhardt filed paperwork with the government officially deregistering as a lobbyist. He attended at least one meeting with district representatives just three days before he was nominated to be deputy secretary by Trump. Within four months of his confirmation, it was reported that Bernhardt pushed for a decision that would be beneficial for the former client.
The National Archives and Records Administration recently confirmed that they sent a letter to Interior requesting that the department address Bernhardt’s missing calendars within 30 days, including a two-month period with 15 missing entries that coincide with Bernhardt’s work on the California water plan. Bernhardt held several meetings on the plan during that period and traveled to the state, but failed to disclose whom he had consulted with to help craft the final plan that eventually led to a presidential memorandum on Western water signed by Trump.
WVP filed three requests (see below) seeking communications related to Bernhardt, his former lobbying firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, and other internal communications within the powerful water district. The original requests were submitted prior to the Senate’s consideration of Bernhardt for the deputy secretary post and sought expedited process so the public may understand Bernhardt’s role and activities with the Westlands Water District in order to better advise their elected representatives regarding his nomination.
Natural Resources Committee Chair Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva and Water, Oceans, & Wildlife Subcommittee Chair Rep. Jared Huffman recently sent a letter to Westlands seeking ‘all documents associated with David Bernhardt and his work relating to his former water district client, including his work to weaken Endangered Species Act protections and to pursue funding for the raising of Shasta Dam over the objections of the State of California.’
Bernhardt was confirmed by the Senate in what was the least popular Interior Secretary nomination vote in 40 years. More information on the former lobbyist and his conflicts is available at www.davidbernhardt.org.